Sunday, May 25, 2008

'And wantonly with th'under-Fishes strives': naughty early modern swimming



















I’m being encouraged to find out about early modern swimming (no, seriously, I am), not I think much considered since Michael West plunged in with his ‘Spenser, Everard Digby, and the Renaissance Art of Swimming’, Renaissance Quarterly (Spring, 1973). This led me to think about bathing scenes, and so on to David and Bathsheba, and I’ve been looking at the Web Gallery of Art’s collection of images. In most, Bathsheba is being ‘bathed’ by her lady attendants sponging her from a basin or ewer, but I did choose a health-spa like scene as my image; it is by Jacopo Zucchi (1573-ish). I think the lady in the middle of the pool may be working on a round-arm stroke; the lady emerging from the water does seem neither to have read the ‘No Petting’ notice nor its small print addendum ‘not even yourself’. They are perhaps all meant to be episodes of Bathsheba doing what her name seems to foretell she would do.

I arrived at a text: Sylvester’s version of Du Bartas, ‘Fourth Day of the Second Week’, where the story of David is told, including a killingly funny version of David and Goliath, and a eulogy on David as poet, with Sylvester’s own quirky testimonial:

“And I my Self in my pied Plaid a-slope, / With Tune-skilled foot after his Harp do hop.”

(There’s a side-note on ‘plaid’: ‘A kind of light mantle made of a thin checkered Cloth, worn by the Hill-men in Scotland : and now much used with us for Saddle clothes’.)


Leaving the pursuit of the plaid in early modern poetry to another idle hour, this is David’s moral ‘decay’, triggered by Bathsheba:

His Song’s sweet fervor slacks, his Soul’s pure Fire
Is damp’d and dimm’d with smoke of foul desire:
His Harp is laid a-side, he leaves his Lays,
And after his fair Neighbors Wife he neighs.

The Bible narrative is terse on David’s behaviour as stallion:

2. And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

3. And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?

4. And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.

5. And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child.

6. And David sent to Joab, saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite …

Du Bartas and Sylvester go to work on this, and are busy to blame Bathsheba for her vanity and exhibitionism:

But, her proud Beauty now, and her Eyes’ force,
Began to draw the Bill of their [her and Uriah’s] Divorce:
Honor gives place to Love: and by degrees
Fear from her heart, Shame from her forehead flees.
The Presence-chamber, the High street, the Temple
These Theaters are not sufficient ample
To show her Beauties, if but Silk them hide:
She must have windows each-where open wide
About her Garden-Baths, the while therein
She basks and bathes her smooth Snow-whiter skin;
And one-while set in a black Jet-like Chair,
Perfumes, and combs, and curls her golden hair

What I found interesting is the mixture of aesthetic memories triggered in the Bartas-Sylvester combo when she actually gets into the water of the bathing pool:

Another-while under the Crystal brinks,
Her Alabastrine well-shap’t Limbs she shrinks
Like to a Lilly sunk into a glass:
Like soft loose Venus (as they paint the Lass)
Born in the Seas, when with her eyes sweet-flames,
Tunnies and Triton, she at-once inflames:
Or like an Ivory Image of a Grace ,
Neatly enclos’d in a thin Crystal Case:
Another-while, unto the bottom dives,
And wantonly with th’under-Fishes strives:
For, in the bottom of this liquid Ice,
Made of Musäick work, with quaint device
The cunning work-man had contrived trim
Carps, Pikes, and Dolphins seeming even to swim.

The lily in a glass and ivory image conceits are directly out of Ovid (Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, that memorable scene of the memorable hazards of swimming in cold water), Venus inflaming the tuna comes from paintings, and Bathsheba ducking under the water to strive wantonly with the ‘under-Fishes’ takes us back to the two blondes in the Jacuzzi who impede the progress of Guyon, champion of temperance, in Spenser’s ‘Bower of Bliss’ episode (the quaint phrasing is pure Sylvester). Could the mosaic tiles of the pool, with those Mediterranean dolphins, be from Roman baths?

David is of course captivated by what he sees (as in the Bible, he sees her by accident because he, well, just happens, to be up on a roof terrace, right, but her open-windowed bathhouse was made to invite prying eyes to the admiration of her beauty):

Ishai’s great son, too-idly, walking hie
Upon a Tarras, this bright star doth spy;
And sudden dazzled with the splendor bright,
Fares like a Prisoner, who new brought to light
From a Cymmerian , dark, deep dungeon,
Feels his sight smitten with a radiant Sun.
But too-too-soon re-clear’d, he sees (alas)
Th’admired Tracts of a bewitching Face.
Her sparkling Eye is like the Morning Star:
Her lips two snips of crimson Satin are:
Her Teeth as white as burnished silver seem
(Or Orient Pearls, the rarest in esteem):
Her Cheeks and Chin, and all her flesh like Snows
Sweet intermixed with Vermillion Rose,
And all her sundry Treasures selfly swell,
Proud, so to see their naked selves excel.

I love her lips as ‘two snips of crimson satin’ (you can always count on a pious author to let rip when the tale turns sexy). I cannot track her ‘sundry Treasures’ that ‘selfly swell’ back in the vast expanses of EEBO texts, but I assume that it is correct and not an error for ‘softly’: her plusher parts are actually swelling in pride at their own plushness.

David has a rapturous apostrophe about the tantalizing effects of this bathing beauty:

O peerless Beauty, merely Beautiful;
(Unknow'n) to me th’art most unmerciful:
Alas! I die, I die (O dismal lot!)
Both for I see thee, and I see thee not
But a-far-off and under water too:
O feeble Power, and O (what shall I do?)
Weak Kingly-State! sith that a silly Woman
Stooping my Crown, can my soul’s Homage summon
But, O Imperial power! Imperial State!
Could (happy) I give Beauty’s Check the Mate.

Thus spake the King: and, like a sparkle small
That by mischance doth into powder fall,
Hee’s all a-fire; and pensive, studies nought,
But how t’accomplish his lascivious thought…

Well, our authors skip through the stirring piece of Bible-based nookie that follows, so as to get back on track with a moralist’s comment on all these goings-on

When Nathan (then bright Brand of Zeal and Faith).
Comes to the King, and modest-boldly sayth…

Nathan doesn’t get some prophetic glimpse of Solomon, loved of the Lord, but ‘modestly-boldly’ tells his King off for the future depravities his fall from grace will trigger. The Book of Samuel mentions in passing that David’s actions displeased the Lord; here, Nathan imagines the Lord’s reprisal will take the perhaps surprising form of an epidemic of incest (Nathan reinforces his point by pointedly observing to David that the latter’s wives will receive his seed or genetic heritage by proxy from his inflamed male offspring). Little or none of this is in 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan says that the Lord will content himself by having David’s wives lie with the neighbour, not in secret, but ‘in sight of this sun’.

Ah shameless beast! Sith thy brute Lust (forlorn)
Hath not the Wife of thy best Friend forborn,
Thy Sons (dis-natur’d) shall defile thy bed
Incestuously; thy fair Wives (ravished)
Shall doubly thy lust-full seed receive:
Thy Concubines (which thou behind shalt leave)
The wanton Rapes of thine own Race shall be:
It shall befall that in thy Family,

With an un-kins-mans kiss (un-loving Lover)
The Brother shall his Sister’s shame discover:
Thou shalt be both Father and Father-in-law
To thine own Blood.

Such are the over-heated consequences of bathing, look you.

1 comment:

Adam Roberts said...

This is indeed encouraged, and encouraging.